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'Where Are the Ballots?' Anger and Suspicion Grow Over Delays in Uganda's Election

VICE News is on the ground in Uganda, where voters are frustrated by delays in delivering ballot papers for today's election and concerned over whether the process is "free and fair."
Photo by Dai Kurokawa/EPA

Ugandans went to the polls to elect a new president and members of parliament on Thursday, in a process that has been disrupted by delays in the delivery of ballot papers, fueling growing frustration among voters and claims of vote rigging.

Polling stations were meant to open at 7am local time in Kampala and Wasisko Districts but did not receive ballots papers and boxes until 1.30pm, delaying the start of the vote by several hours. People who had been lining up since 6am grew increasingly angry. "I've voted since I was 18 and now I am in my 30s, and I have never seen this," a woman called Mary Nduru told the polling station presiding officer in Kabalagala, a neighborhood which predominantly supports opposition candidates standing against President Yoweri Museveni.

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"You don't want us to vote? Where are the ballots? Are they being cast for us?" Nduru insisted. The country's electoral commission has apologized for the delays but, as he cast his vote in Western Uganda, main opposition candidate Kizza Besigye said: "Such a day is highly undermined by the lack of free and fair elections."

Related: Ugandan Opposition Rally Ends in Tear Gas and the Candidate Being Towed Away

Tension escalated through out the day, as many people feared the delay to be a plot elaborated by the Electoral Commission to facilitate Museveni's re-election. Besigye's party, the FDC, claimed it found evidence of a vote rigging operation in downtown Kampala. The party leader was reportedly arrested for the third time this week when he demanded to be granted access to the building where his supporters claim the operation was taking place.

In Munyono, a middle class neighborhood, police and voters confronted each other when rumors that ballot papers had already been ticked off by the ruling party started spreading shortly after the voting material finally arrived at 2pm. The stand-off eventually ended up when the police tear-gassed the crowd and closed the polling station before anyone could cast their vote.

Elsewhere in the capital, polling stations remained open until 7pm to allow people extra time to vote and, once underway, the process went on relatively smoothly.

Social media — including Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp — have been shutdown since 2am "for security reasons," according to the Uganda Communication Commission. Radio stations were broadcasting tips to circumvent the block and explaining listeners how to install VPN services on Thursday morning.

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The election was already taking place in a climate of tension heightened by security forces' crackdown on opposition rallies in the last few weeks of the campaign.

After 30 years of rule, President Museveni is once again running in what is expected to be Uganda's most hotly contested elections since 1986, when he took power. Opinion polls show the incumbent and his main challenger Besigye in a tight race, although the outcome is unlikely to be anything else than a win for Museveni.

Most people have known no other head of state than Museveni

For most voters, today was their first time voting. Nearly 80 percent of Uganda's population was born after 1986, meaning most people have known no other head of state than Museveni, who has been nicknamed "the grandfather."

But after three decades at the helm of the country, people are growing impatient with Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party due to concerns over corruption, unemployment, and lack of health care and other basic services.

People queue to cast their votes in presidential and parliamentary elections in front of a shop serving hot food at a polling station in Luzira slum, Kampala, Uganda. (Photo by Dai Kurokawa/EPA)

Turn out was low today, with most polling stations visited by VICE News estimating that just above 50 percent of voters participated in the ballot.

Many young people want change but lack the means to push for it. "The problem is the lack of economic empowerment for the youth. If you can't pay rent and you have to feed a child, things are tough. The government capitalizes on this. If you are constantly struggling to make ends meet, you cannot have political freedom," Andrew Karagami, a 27-year-old law graduate and a leader of the Black Friday movement denouncing corruption in the political system, told VICE News.

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Since 1990, Uganda's population has doubled and improvements in the education system, especially at the university level, mean that more and more young adults are educated. The economy, still largely based on low-intensity agriculture, has been struggling to absorb this new workforce and unemployment has gone up exponentially.

'If you are constantly struggling to make ends meet, you cannot have political freedom'

The NRM has been lavishly spending on Museveni's electoral campaign to secure votes in recent months, attracting accusation of bribery and corruption by local civil society. "Money has been siphoned from the state coffers to finance his campaign. Meanwhile, schools and hospitals are not financed, and it will get worse post-elections. Most of the budget for the year has already been spent," Edward Sekyewa, director of the Hub for Investigative Journalism, told VICE News.

At NRM meetings, people have been given campaign t-shirts, free soda, food, and even money according to activists who claim thousands of supporters attending Museveni's rallies are in fact hired by the ruling party to follow the president's campaign trail. "Every election, the government has to spend more and more to ensure Museveni's re-election," added Karagami.

Related: Quick Hit: Political Arrest Sparks Unrest in Uganda

Museveni's main challengers, Besigye and Amama Mbabazi, are former allies who once held important positions within the NRM. Mbabazi was the prime minister and party general secretary until he announced his candidacy in July last year. Besigye was Museveni's personal physician during the guerrilla war fought in the 1980s, and rose through the ranks of the NRM but eventually distanced himself to form the largest opposition movement, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) when a multi-party system was introduced in 2005.

Follow Melanie Gouby on Twitter: @Melaniegouby